One is a 54-year-old former Air Force officer who became a teacher 11 years ago and created a popular schoolwide math competition. Another is a 31-year-old reading teacher who has incorporated cutting-edge technology into her lessons. And the third is a 43-year-old principal who has brought order to a once-chaotic school.

The three educators were honored yesterday for their innovative work with the kind of enthusiastic pep rally usually reserved for sports teams--then handed checks of $25,000 apiece.

The Milken National Educator Awards, funded by multimillionaire and convicted felon Michael Milken and his brother Lowell, provide the largest cash awards for U.S. educators. Winners are secretly nominated by their peers.

"I'm speechless," said Duane Miller, a math teacher at Eugene Burroughs Middle School in Prince George's County who entered a school assembly thinking he had to do hall duty. Instead he was awarded the check by Maryland School Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

Roger Plunkett, principal at Wilde Lake High in Howard County, was "shocked" by the honor and Debra Calvert, a reading teacher at John Hanson Middle School in Charles County, burst into tears when her named was called.

Calvert has made an impression on her students by having them surf the Internet for class projects and act out scenes from plays.

"With all the media and games and videos around them today, they're looking for that kind of stimulation," she said. "You can't just stand up there and teach like you used to."

Megan Togni, 14, said Calvert let her act out the first scene of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." "That was great because I want to go into acting," Megan said.

Wilde Lake's Plunkett is a 22-year veteran of Howard schools. Since his first day at the school three years ago, when he stood amid the swirl of students with a bullhorn, telling them to get to class now, attendance has risen and the dropout rate has fallen.

Before, said Howard Superintendent Michael E. Hickey, the school lacked a strong sense of discipline and focus on academic achievement. Now, "it's a world of difference," Hickey said. "People think at times that he's a tyrant about some things . . . but he's created a much different feel at that school."

Plunkett, who was conned into staging a pep rally for himself by broadcasters from Court TV who were at the school for a different project, said: "I was shocked and appreciative. I want to have an impact wherever I go."

At Eugene Burroughs Middle School, Miller said he spent more than two hours a night in his den preparing lesson plans, after leaving a regimented 20-year military career for the more disorderly classroom. He supervised an after-school math club and created a schoolwide competition called the "Math Expo," in which students tackle math games and puzzles.

Miller also drew raves for his role in helping improve the morale of his peers, creating "action groups" that teamed up teachers to work on budget and safety issues.

"Teachers feel they have a shared ownership because of him," Principal Bruce Katz said.

In the thrill of the moment, Miller was momentarily stumped when a reporter asked his age. "Let's see," Miller said. "I was born in 1945 and now it's 1999 . . . "

Then he did what came naturally. He did the math.

Staff writer Linda Perlstein contributed to this report.

CAPTION: Prince George's teacher Duane Miller, right, holds a check with school board member James E. Henderson.

CAPTION: Amid confetti at John Hanson Middle School in Charles County, Debra Calvert, right, is applauded by Marci Kolitch, another teacher.